The No. 12 Georgia Bulldogs are 3-0 heading into this weekend’s matchup with No. 23 Ole Miss (1-2), but despite the perfect record so far, things haven’t been perfect for Kirby Smart’s team.
Georgia has had to make a comeback to win all three of its games so far this season, most recently needing a last-minute drive by freshman quarterback Jacob Eason to seal the deal against Missouri on the road. On fourth and 10, Georgia was down, 27-21, with under two minutes to go. Eason found Isaiah McKenzie up the seam in man-to-man coverage for the game-winning touchdown.
You can't teach clutch.
— SEC Network (@SECNetwork) September 18, 2016
Considering Georgia is expected to compete for the SEC East crown and Mizzou is likely a cellar-dweller, the margin of victory was too close for comfort for Smart and his staff.
Even more concerning: The Bulldogs were also tested by FCS opponent Nicholls State in Week 2, and Week 1’s matchup with North Carolina needed a come-from-behind effort as well.
So yes, UGA is 3-0, but it hasn’t been a cakewalk.
The Bulldogs also have to be worried about the rushing attack, despite having junior Nick Chubb healthy.
Chubb is a dark horse Heisman contender and he showed why against UNC, going off for 222 yards and two touchdowns. He did find the end zone against Nicholls but posted only 80 yards on 20 carries — good for four yards per carry. Against Mizzou, Chubb was basically shut down. He rushed 19 times for 63 yards and no touchdowns, averaging just 3.3 yards per touch.
Naturally, the rest of UGA’s run game has followed suit.
As a team, Georgia rushed for only 125 yards against Nicholls. Mizzou also had great success against the Georgia run game. McKenzie took a handoff on a bubble-motion out of the backfield for a rushing score, but he was the only Georgia runner to find the end zone against the Tigers. Junior Sony Michel did get more playing time after making a return from injury against Nicholls, but even he notched only 37 yards on nine attempts.
Especially with a freshman quarterback leading the way, the run game was supposed to be one of Georgia’s biggest assets this season. Chubb is one of the best running backs in the nation, and now that Michel is back, the Bulldogs arguably possess one of the best one-two backfield punches in college football.
Through three games — with the outlier being the UNC game, thanks to Chubb — Georgia’s rushing attack has been underwhelming. That’s discouraging news heading into the teeth of the SEC schedule, but there could be a small respite this weekend against Mississippi.
The Rebels, fresh off a tight game with No. 1 Alabama, are ranked second-to-last in the SEC in terms of rushing yards given up per game (242.67). The defense is also allowing a healthy 4.99 yards per carry. The Rebels have given up six rushing touchdowns so far this season. As a point of comparison, Alabama has allowed only one.
The only defense worse than Ole Miss on the ground is Kentucky, and Mark Stoops’ team is 1-2. The Wildcats lost to Southern Mississippi in Week 1 and got clobbered by Florida in Week 2. Kentucky did beat New Mexico State in Week 3, but even then, the team gave up 223 yards and three touchdowns on the ground.
The point: If Hugh Freeze is comparing his rush defense to Kentucky’s, he’s not setting the bar high as far as expectations are concerned.
Ole Miss struggling to defend the running game is great new for Georgia. After two underwhelming rushing performances, this is the perfect opportunity for Chubb and company to flex their collective muscle and get back in a groove.
After looking like a Heisman favorite in Week 1, Chubb is itching to get back in the national spotlight. Putting up 100 or more yards on a Top-25 team on the road would certainly put him back in the picture.
Michel should also play a bigger role in this game, now three weeks removed from his return from injury. If Chubb gets going, Michel could be the change-of-pace Georgia needs to keep Ole Miss’s defense off balance. Though a gut feeling isn’t scientific proof, it’s reasonable to believe that Michel is primed for a breakout game as well. He rushed for 1,161 yards and eight touchdowns last season, so a big game has to be on the way pretty soon — at least if he wants to replicate or improve the production from his sophomore season.
Of all the SEC opponents UGA could face this weekend, Ole Miss is the one that should allow it to get the rushing attack back on track.